What is Referral Spam and How to Keep it Out of Google Analytics

Serious business owners should embrace the free tool of Google Analytics (GA) and concentrate on the data being accurate.  Unfortunately, you need to aware that your data can be (and probably is already) “corrupted” by referral spam and there are steps you should take to remove this dangerous  spam, or the results you get will be skewed.

What is referral spam?  Referral spam is the practice or action of sending fake referral traffic to a website or product.  It is an increasing trend and if not addressed can be a serious problem.

First, let’s cover some basics.  A web crawler, also known as a web spider or web robot is an automated software that scours the “worldwide web” and categorizes information.  Think of the internet as an exponentially expanding library with billions, maybe trillions of articles, blogs, and related data.  The crawling of this data is actually an essential activity to make sense out of the vast amount of data that continues to expand.  In fact, the most famous or active crawler is “Googlebot” and you can read a detailed explanation by Google here: Crawling and Indexing.

So, the good news is the search engines of the world – Google, Yahoo, and all the others, use crawlers to keep order in the sea of information.  Most web crawlers identify themselves and won’t show in your GA reports.

For our purposes in this blog, there are two types of “referral” spam presences:

1)  Spammy crawlers.  Let’s just call them “evil” web crawlers that don’t identify themselves in that manner and skew the analytic details by measuring as a 100% bounce rate with a zero second duration.  Semalt is one of the largest offenders in this category, but they claim they will remove any site within 30 minutes after they are notified.  While we can’t verify their claim, we’ve provided a link to that removal page, so feel free to put your site in their removal tool here: remove box at their site here.

2)  Ghost referral traffic is probably the worst type and largest problem of the spam that pollutes GA.  We found a great explanation of what these bot do at a blog by Ben Davis at viget.com:

“Ghost referral traffic, arguably the greater of the two referral spam evils, never actually visits a website. In these cases, spammers exploit the fact that Google Analytics now transfers information via HTTP requests directly to Google Analytics servers, meaning someone can “spoof” a session very easily. Ghost referral traffic can be generated by a simple program that sends fake HTTP requests aimed at different Google Analytics properties, so this traffic doesn’t even hit your site. Even more annoying is the fact that this type of spam can be used to spoof organic search results, as well”

Ghost referral spam simply corrupts and messes up and corrupts the GA data which gives inflated traffic and bogus duration times for the data to be worth anything.  This can be extremely detrimental for those trying to measure the effectiveness and click-through rates on their site with e-commerce.  Sites with very limited volume can have their data completely worthless by just one of these ghost referral spam crawlers.

Referral spam has these additional detriments:

1)  Corrupts SEO measurement because one goal of these spiders is to create links from websites that publish their access logs on the sites they are visiting.   Inside their access logs might be the spammer’s URL which in turn creates backlinks and can improve the search engine results for the spammer’s URL.  With a spamming “bot” laying “word eggs” at various unsuspecting sites, any site that publishes analytic data then is an unwitting and free source of the spamming URL, which continues to be read and ranked by Google, usually with higher results.

2)  If the referral spam had bad intentions, it could substitute it’s own URL to the victim’s URL and then those back links could be identified as spam going out from the victim’s site and the user is completely unaware that they are now spreading spam because their URL is back linked to the referral spammers access logs.

3)  Malware could be spread and utilized because a referral spam crawler can identify which sites have malware embedded in their sites and that data could be “mined” by a third party for sending more spam-type software, or by taking advantage of sites not protected.  In short, you are leaving yourself open for someone to come knocking “electronically”, and by entering your site can possibly steal information such as bank codes, passwords, etc…

4)  As a final kick in the pants, you have to endure seeing these invaders in your GA reports over and over again.

Or, do you?

Google Analytics Filter  

Fortunately, Google Analytics has provided a tool to filter out the offending sites.  While it can’t remove the spamming bots, it can at least remove the “visits” from a site that would otherwise show up in analytic data through GA.

We’ve prepared a video that shows how to set up filters to block the spam offending bot and you can see it here:

The current list of offenders includes:

  • semalt.com
  • buttons-for-website.com
  • darodar.com
  • priceg.com
  • makemoneyonline.com
  • blackhatworth.com
  • hulfingtonpost.com
  • bestwebsitesawards.com
  • o-o-6-o-o.com
  • ilovevitaly.com
  • simple-share-buttons.com
  • social-buttons.com
  • econom.co
  • ilovevitaly.co
  • ilovevitaly.ru
  • humanorightswatch.org
  • 4webmasters.org
  • addons.mozilla.org / ilovevitaly
  • site12.social-buttons.com / referral

Google Analytics help has created normal character “programming” to help you construct meaningful filters and remove spam locations.  Read about it here and learn how to embed these spam bots into filter construction to remove from your GA reports.  

It will take some time to create a filter that works correctly, and to give you a head start, here is one filter put together that removes many of the referral spam identified above:


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